Sunday, October 24, 2010

Recovering the humanities, revitalizing democracy

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

There was a time, not very long ago, when the humanities were under attack. Now they are just ignored. It is as if the case for 'job-oriented' education (to use a tasteless phrase that rules the journalistic writings on education these days) had been decisively and finally won. So long as someone was speaking against the humanities, a dialogue –howsoever worn-out and tattered– was at least alive, though not with any great kicking life. But a silence now reigns over the fate of the humanities.
            It is a symptomatic silence. Symptomatic because it comes at a time when cultural commodities become most expensive and attract increasing investment under the shadow of speculation. As canny communicators and cool gurus swarm the cultural marketplace, it is nevertheless being proclaimed that an education in the humanities no longer pays.
            While the humanities shrink and decay in their old homes in colleges and universities, new institutions –private, corporate– prosper, spinning money out of a booming culture industry. Clearly, cultural production has become a protected economic activity for an elitist minority that collaborates with corporate media to produce culture for consumption by the masses.
            Timely infusion of critical funding could have renovated the old homes of humanities and built them into competitive sites of cultural production. But this was not done. Why? One can speculate. Along with marketable cultural production these sites might have spawned some unwelcome offspring: critique and dissent. Something the corporate education apparatus can be relied on to kill before birth. ‘Reforms’ in their first, fragile blossoming couldn’t have been exposed to any menace, least of all to seductions of forbidden knowledge.
            The National Knowledge Commission's professions of love for good old humanities for the sake of a better future are already rotting in mouldy archives. And the spectacular dream of resuscitating the Nalanda University, with its international cast of star faculty and wages in dollars, mocks the great old Nalanda's soul: that becoming, not being, is the truth. Institutions are not made of bricks and mortar alone but of ideas and the free, questing spirit that animates them. In its erasure of the boundaries between the past and the present, Project Nalanda avows the refusal to face either. A strange avowal. Uncanny, to be precise.
            How do we go about the task of recovering the humanities? Certainly not by trying to dig out of burial some pristine version of them. In the humanities, as elsewhere, we must affirm 'becoming'. And in our time, that affirmation ought to be performed democratically and for democracy. The humanities must today be recovered as the democratic trial of truth(s). For too long have we, the children of modernity and enlightenment, stood guard over an idea of democracy that brooks no fundamental interrogation. At the very least, the humanities can begin to revitalize democracy through their textual practices, as they have been famously doing for several decades now, in which the enactment and trial of democracies take place. These simple and basic exercises can pave the way for a larger mobilization of thought dedicated to our common democratic futures. Otherwise, government by management will completely erode and replace government by democratic politics.
            Yet for this to materialize, the space of the humanities must be protected against brutal depredations of the market. The law of the market is not a natural law, notwithstanding the appearances concocted by an ideologically committed corporate media. In an era of cognitive capitalism when creativity becomes a premium input for profit maximization, we need to restore some sanctity to the Holy Muse and learn to deposit our mundane calculations outside the portals of its shrine. Only then shall we hear other voices. Only then shall we be able to speak in other tongues. Democracy's survival demands nothing less.


M L Raina said...

I share your anguish at the way humanities are being shoved on to the pavement. Today's Guardian carries the grim news that some major universities are diverting funds from the humanities to the areas 'that pay'. Brought up as I am on the idea of humanities as a civilising enterprise (Badri wouldn’t like my saying this!), I find myself wringing my calloused hands in despair.

As to your plea that humanities need to be recovered from corporate absorption, I just don’t know how we do it. Should we cut the artist's finger (pace Van Gogh) and proclaim with Byron 'I shed my misery in song'? Or should we hearken to Sahir's battle-cry 'aaj se mere fun ka maqsad zanjeeren pighlana hai/ aaj se mein amrit ke badle angare barsaoonga’. Neither alternative seems to satisfy. All that I can hope for is a creative minority, a minority no less who would cultivate the values that humanities enshrine. That is why I think we academics have a role to play. It has to be educative and not minatory. It has to emphasize the fact that, to recall Hamlet, 'there is more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in thine philosophy, Horatio (read corporatist science)'. We have to tell the young entrepreneurs of humanistic study that wisdom distilled in the humanities is worth caring for if not worth emulating. In this respect let me remind our post-modernist practitionres of cultural amnesia of Gurchraan Das's recent book in which he makes use of Mahabharat to emphasise values that his business-school gurus have forgotten. Though Dass is not my idea of a humanist, his book surely rings a note that needs to be picked up. As a first step, let us fine-tune our aural sense to pick up those notes.

Badri Raina said...

admirable cry in the wilderness; long history there; much damage was done by high culturists who turned the humanities into forbidding enclaves of elitism; they need to be critiqued as well (all the way from Arnold);
meanwhile, the humanities produce the critics but no goods and services. . .

Gurdev Chauhan said...

Restoring the dignified position of Humanities departments in universities the world over, especially in Indian universities, must receive attention of everyone, especially of those who really matter in the field of culture as distinct from culture industry. Perhaps the wind of change is around the corner, fueled by the World Wide Web. Fallout of the merging contradictions in the capitalistic economy might factor in this change... positive pointers. I rely on the democratic role of the Web in the long run. Tension between oral and written nature of culture also stands in the way, though. Your piece brings the issue up so well and timely.

Nibir Ghosh said...

Thanks for sharing your concern for the diminishing returns of humanities. Great piece. Congrats!

Deep Inder said...

read your interesting article, perhaps what you say of the humanities is true of education as a whole! look at the fate of the 'pure sciences'...